Friday, February 20, 2009

Contemplating New York


Street scene on snowy day - 5th Avenue


On the E Train to downtown.

I'm reading a wonderful book called Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnick, a writer for the New Yorker, about the five years he spent with his wife and baby son in Paris from 1995 - 2000. So far (and I am about 1/4 way through the book) it is tender, funny and acutely observant of the detailed differences between life in the US (specifically his own New York) and life in Paris. It required him to be a witness while simultaneously living into this new place, an immigrant.

It inspires me to begin my own journaling on New York - an entirely new experience for this farm girl from Iowa who spent a few years in the belle of the South - Charleston - and twenty-four years raising a family in the hardy and hard-working Minneapolis. New York is a different world, but that is the point.

As I lay awake at night listening to the annoying, but ever present percussive pipes surrounding the walls of my bed in my prewar apartment, sounding alternatively like an orchestra of tympanis or someone slowly, rhythmically sharpening a knife on a sharpening strap, my mind latches onto some details of my day. In the night, the thoughts expand, bigger than they are in real time. And last night I began to think about a part of life here that is unique to a walking city, which I mostly enjoy.

The Street Dance.

When I am out and about in the city, I do have recollections of our time in Florence. The scenery, the smells, the textures of the buildings are a bit different, but the street dance is taking place in both cities. It requires that one's senses be heightened to others, to their movement, their intention, their discomfort and maybe even their power. Not required, but included for me is the pleasure of the visual display of fashion, of gait, of studying the people with confidence, of the elderly making their way around this city and of the diversity of skin color and ethnicity and languages.

In New York, unless you are shielded by a car or cab, you are among people. It is making me more observant and sensitive. Sidewalks don't have yellow lines down the middle, no passing zones. There is no speed limit. The streets of New York allow for any and all varieties of walkers. There are moms with strollers, often covered by a plastic shield to protect from wind and rain. There can be a sea of umbrellas on a rainy or snowy day, making the maneuvering only more treacherous or you lose an eye. There are the elderly, beautifully dressed, sometimes with a cane to overcome the insecurity of a curb or the inequality of concrete. There are the young and hip, often walking to a beat, a beat provided by the white headphones hanging iconically from their ears, tucked into a black and slightly wrinkled coat. There are the Europeans, often (but not always) still identifiable here in New York because of the way they look just slightly different. The men look like men with a scarf and great shoes, hair slightly longer. The women confident and feminine, long hair, sometimes messy on purpose, precise and complete in their style, whether it be French deconstructed or Italian sexy. Then, the lilt of their beautiful language confirms the suspected difference. There are the worker bees, bikes with delivery baskets parked in front of D'Agostinos and restaurants, descending to the depths delivering boxes of food to the storage areas, packing away the unsold flowers from the street and storing them below for the night, only to be brought up into the light of day once again the next morning. There are the smokers from whom you can't seem to get out of their exhaust. There are hand holding couples; love seems to shield them from the sound and fury of the cityscape. They move at their own pace, usually slower than the pack. There are men in long coats, tailored, beautiful, strong and middle-aged, moving and shaking this city into its form; you imagine them the deal makers. There is the vast middle class, mostly wearing black or variations on the theme, dressed for the weather in boots, hats, gloves, coats that won't show too much wear and tear. I read recently that only very wealthy women own a white coat in New York. You would have to clean it after each wearing. In the summer, stripped of the bondage of winter gear, women show skin, bare legs and painted toes. Shoulders are loose. Streets are less crowded. The scene is prettier.

So, if this is the company of dancers, what is our coreography? There is none. It is purely improv out there. Yet, it seems to me there is a basic agreement toward kinship, a kind of "We're all in this together, so let's generally make it pleasant." New Yorkers don't saunter, unless they are window shopping on Madison. They move with purpose. They have places to go and things to do.

I've come to enjoy this dance. It is the corps of humanity, all on this stage together and we learn how to swing a hip to avoid collision in any given moment, whisper an "Excuse me," with a meager smile and, if really awake and not distracted by one's own mental minutiae, join in emotionally. I sometimes feel suddenly sad. It isn't the homeless that do it - there aren't all that many. It is a tired face that will do it to me. I think, "What is their burden today?"

In a car, we are completely protected from those faces, a huge, expensive metal defense and, given what our cars say about us, a social barrier. I know our country was not designed in a way that most of us can avoid using a car. But, for Lee and me, after living in Florence for a month a couple of years ago, we realized that we are happiest on our feet, interacting with the architecture and people of a city more intimately. It is why we chose New York. It is insecure, out of your control, human intimacy. There are smells and people you won't like. I see aging in all forms every day and therefore, I am more sensitive to what I see in the mirror. I don't like it sometimes. Here, life happens. No covering it up. People get old and they still sit next to you at the restaurant. It is wonderful. People are homeless and you walk past them on the street (not drive past them as I do in Minneapolis.) People work hard and look worse for the wear. Others are beautiful and frivolous in their furs and fashion. And I am coming to appreciate it all. The range of emotion I can feel in a day is broad. Sometimes it is not very comfortable, but I am alive here and I know it.

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